Tech entrepreneur talks about the highs and lows of running a startup in Uganda

Ugandan-based entrepreneur Titus Mawano’s startup provides a low-cost business management platform for SMEs. The service, called Ffene, was awarded a US$10,000 prize after emerging as winner in the Apps4Africa 2012 challenge. How we made it in Africa’s Dinfin Mulupi caught up with Mawano in Nairobi and talked about how technology can help SMEs run efficiently, the ICT sector in Uganda and his ambitions.

Tell us about Ffene and what your business does.

We provide business management software and support services that help SMEs run efficiently with reduced administrative costs. We are currently focusing on a problem that the majority of SMEs in Africa face; keeping their records on paper. We have developed Ffene, our flagship software, which combines accounting, customer relationship management and inventory support. The software enables users to document sales, track how specific products are performing and track the flow of revenue into the business. This data helps entrepreneurs make sound decisions by getting deeper meaning from records that, for instance, track what specific customers purchase, and even simple things like how much debt has not been collected.

Why should SMEs use this kind of software?

One of our current clients would spend two days every year doing nothing but calculating unpaid debts and tracking who owed them what because they run a subscription business. That is a waste of time and manpower. This is the kind of information users can get by the click of a mouse using Ffene. You can never go wrong if you know your business. It is a reality that the majority of African business owners do not know crucial things about their businesses. This is one of the reasons why most SMEs fail; because entrepreneurs don’t track their cash flow and therefore spend more than they make. Ffene gives users a dashboard that can tell them they have been making losses for the last six months, for instance. That would help one make important decisions before things go bad. It basically gives a manager a bird’s eye view of their business.

Describe your experience as a startup in Uganda.

It is amazing and frustrating at the same time. It is definitely uncharted waters and that is a good thing too. No one in Uganda has tried to consumerise enterprise software. It is an open space that no one has considered approaching and even try solving. There is a lot of challenges, but that is a good thing. There is never a moment of dullness.

Tell us about some of the challenges you face.

The major one is internet connectivity. This is a big issue. We are constantly worried about the amount of time our customers take before they can use Ffene because we are an online service. However, we plan to roll out an offline service soon.

Computer literacy is also a challenge. We are dealing with people who may not be as tech savvy as we are. There is a tendency to overestimate their capabilities. We have been struggling with this, but we are getting better at speaking their language both in design and support. Our ideal design should be something that is as easy to use as Facebook. Everyone should be able to use it, whether or not they are a computer wizard.

How is the ICT sector in Uganda performing?

It is really picking up now. About three years ago, I would say it was really a shame compared to what was happening in Kenya. But now, we are seeing a surge. People are getting rallied around the ICT sector. We are seeing the diaspora coming back to either create businesses, invest in startups or give their time to teach entrepreneurs. It is really promising. There is a great opportunity, but as it is with anything, if we don’t take charge of it now, it could just as easily slip away.

What do you hope to achieve?

If the software can fundamentally affect a few businesses each year and genuinely make them more efficient, I would consider that an achievement. We hope to have thousands of customers in the next two years.

Your advice for other technology entrepreneurs?

It is going to be painful but don’t give up. If you are doing it for money, you are going to fail. You need to have passion.